In Conversation with Usamah Kise: “Giving a voice for the voiceless”

An interdisciplinary artist currently based in London, Usamah Kise’s work combines illustration, mixed media, fashion, photography, and many other aspects influenced by an early love of graffiti. We sat down with Kise to hear more about the inspirations, processes, and development of his career that is spiraling into one of success and notoriety. Throughout the conversation, it became clear that the main goals and motivations behind his work are not led selfishly, rather, with the intention of bringing light to the barriers societal expectations and prejudices create between people. Kise’s work is an exemplary example of showing how the artists’ role in society can be beneficial for challenging discriminatory narratives through visual formats.

Where did you grow up and how has this environment impacted your art style?

I was born and raised in Nottingham, and I moved to London about eight or nine years ago. Nottingham is quite a small place in comparison to London, so I’d see a lot of graffiti street art on my route to school and on the way home over the weekend. Because it’s such a small place a lot of it felt quite condensed because there’s quite a lot of it and wasn’t spread out. I was constantly being exposed to it which I think subconsciously impacted and influenced me without even realising it. A lot of people don’t seem to notice it when they walk past and just see it as a picture, but I don’t know, I’ve always been drawn to it and the story behind it. Like, how did the person get there, when did they do it, how did they plan it? – I’ve always felt there was more to it.

 

 

What would you say are the main factors – such as music, artists etc. – that have been most influential to your practice?

For me I’m a huge lover of hip-hop and all the different elements that come within hip-hop – whether that’s DJing, break-dancing, or graffiti. It was how I fell in love with graffiti and art and listening to 80’s and 90’s hip-hop. It’s been such a massive influence on me and still continues to be in my work even now.

I don’t really look at artists, I try to kind of stay away from looking at them too much because I don’t want to be influenced. I like to have everything I do be one hundred percent from me and from my development as an artist. I am aware of what is happening; what galleries are showing what, where people are painting in terms of graffiti. So, I’m always tapped into the scene, but I’m in more of the background. I kind of just like to do my own thing, which I think that’s stemmed from my graffiti days. It’s important to show that you are an individual and are original because street art has become so popular recently in the last five or six years. We see more and more people embracing this style, but they are doing it based off what they see online and lack their own journey to it.

 

I’ve noticed that much of your early work is wildstyle graffiti based in various urbanised environments, how did you become interested in this style and what were your intentions, if any?

At the time I just loved painting graffiti. About five or six years ago it was something I would do every weekend; it wasn’t something I did for a career or with any hopes to have a job from it. I did it purely because it was something I loved. It gave me the chance to travel across the UK and Europe, meet all types of people and paint in all these different places. So, I felt like even though I had the option to paint in these places, I also got an understanding of different cultures, types of people, and backgrounds. Regardless, I always did it with the intention of doing it for the love of it, not for anything else. Everything that has come from it has been a blessing, but the fact that I’ve been able to paint just for the love of it is enough for me, I don’t really need much more than that. Looking back on a piece that I’ve done is always a nice feeling because I can say, ‘yeah, I did that’

 When did you realise you were passionate about multidisciplinary arts and wanted to take this passion further into a career?

To be honest, I’ve always been pretty creative since I was young. I’ve always been drawing – I remember when I was about six years old copying The Simpsons, you know, cartoons and stuff. I’ve always been involved in some kind of creative activity, and as I’ve grown up and gotten older, I’ve had the opportunity to explore different areas of that, whether that’s graphic design, photography, fine art or graffiti. I’ve been really fortunate with my upbringing and where I come from, as I’ve had the opportunity to immerse myself in all these different elements and incorporate them into my work. As a result of this, I feel like my work is so distinct; it’s because I’ve incorporated a lot of different disciplines into it.

What has been the most difficult thing about pursuing a creative career?

Just believing in yourself. You’ll always have people telling you that your work is great and that you’re going to go far, but it doesn’t matter unless you believe in yourself and that you know you’re good enough. It’s so easy to get imposter syndrome and feel like you’re not up there with these other artists in galleries. Just because your work isn’t in a high-end gallery doesn’t mean that your work isn’t good enough to be in one. The thing with the art world is that a lot of it is about your name – so you could have a lot of great work, but if you’re not known in the scene it’s a lot more difficult to get those opportunities. Just believing in yourself is probably the biggest thing for me. I’ve always doubted my abilities, but I’d say in the past maybe two years is when I came to the realisation that I am good enough to be up there with these big artists and be on the scene, so I just needed to embrace that. Since then, things have only been getting better, so I feel like that is the key to a lot of success; just having faith in yourself.

 

It is my understanding you moved to London to study MA Design for Communication – has this move changed your creative interests? If so, to what?

I would say it influenced me in the sense that I learned a lot about the history of graphic design. It gave me the opportunity to learn a lot about typography, composition, image placement, which has been emerging in my work a lot more recently. Particularly typography. Coming from a graffiti background it’s always been something I’ve been interested in, but never really had the chance to learn the more traditional side of things.

Typography, in the sense of graffiti, is how I started my career. It’s what I’m from, it’s all I know really. So, it’s why I decided to develop that knowledge because I know it’s an element of my work that I will never get rid of. Whether it’s graffiti, typography, or just letters in general, I’ll always have it in my work. Studying was the option to gain more knowledge on the history and tradition side of things– there’s a lot of rules when it comes to typography and design in general; ‘you shouldn’t do this, you shouldn’t do that’. With my work I do the opposite, I’m trying to show people you don’t always have follow the rules of design to make good work.

 

 Your work is full of energy and in a way feels like the portrait collages are blended with the warped and unique shapes associated with earlier graffiti murals. How has your work progressed from murals to collage illustrations?

Having all these areas of design that I worked and was interested in, I felt like I was spreading myself too thin. It got to a point where I just wanted to put it all into one piece and combine all these different elements. Some would argue these different elements shouldn’t be together. For instance, graffiti and photography; they are very different and have such different qualities, but, why not? Why not put them together? This is really what I’ve been focusing on and exploring now.

For the past few years, I’ve been focusing a lot more on working with galleries and establishing a network with them. When painting graffiti I never had an opportunity to show my work in exhibitions and shows, so I wanted a chance to do something a bit different. My introduction into the gallery scene started by painting my wild styles on canvases, which slowly developed and saw the introduction of typography, photography, and building up these elements on canvases until it got to a point where I was happy with it.


What is it about portraiture and mixed media that you enjoy the most?

With mixed media, I love having all these different textures and elements within the piece. I love painting and using single mediums but, for me, I kind of get a bit bored doing that. I thrive from having more in there. In my pieces you will see photography, spray paint, oil paint, oil pastel, pencil; there’s so many different elements that every time you look you’ll see something different and notice something new. You see pieces within a piece. What I said earlier about combining different disciplines of design which maybe shouldn’t be together, the same goes for materials as well. Like, maybe oil pastels shouldn’t be with spray paint, but, why not? If it looks good, why shouldn’t we do it? There are no rules to art and design, and I think people are sometimes too strict with it and I want to go against that.
I like to work with faces and portraiture a lot because I like to try and work to improve what the state of representation looks like in our society. I feel like a lot of the time we are told or shown how to look – whether that’s influences on social media, magazines, whatever that may be – so with my work I like to try and challenge that by showing people that maybe you don’t have to look like that to be beautiful. Beauty is subjective, and that’s what I try to do with the portraiture in my work.

I believe that the role of the artist is to tell society what it pretends it doesn’t know. I’m trying to show people and get them to open their eyes a bit more. I’m sure we all feel inferior to people, and we fear and envy them, and it shouldn’t be like that. I feel like my work critiques these parts of society and I want my work to basically call for a revolution against it, to liberate people from stereotypes and oppression. I know it sounds crazy, but this is why I’m so passionate about my work, it’s because I believe in it and the message behind it. I feel like that is my motivation behind my work as well; to just keep challenging society, what we know and what we see, and to present people with something different, something they can relate to a bit more.

Having worked on projects such as #TiedTogether, and ‘Pride, Pole & Prejudice’ which have ties to political and social issues, do you feel a sense of responsibility for using your art as a means of providing a platform for key movements?

The #TiedTogether campaign a couple of years ago, was put together by The Business of Fashion to call out the fashion industry because they were only using certain types of models within their catwalks and promotional marketing. They were excluding a lot of ethnic minorities, so they created this campaign called Tied Together where you would wear a white bandanna to show support. I worked with them to create a series of digital collages with these white bandannas and, of course, the models included in my work were minorities. It’s very similar to the ideology behind my personal work, which is to challenge stereotypes and mass ideologies.
The same with Pride, Pole & Prejudice, pole dancing is often seen as a negative stereotype within society, everybody just associates it with certain things. People don’t realise how hard it is and how much of a skill it takes. It was a great opportunity and was something different in terms of subject matter for me, but the mindset and narrative was still there for challenging what people think. I feel I have a strong platform and I should use that to give a voice to the voiceless. As a creative and an artist, it’s my job to almost disrupt society and be there for the minorities and smaller groups of people who don’t always have their voices heard. So, when I work on certain projects and campaigns, I don’t always say yes to every project if it doesn’t fit my beliefs and ideologies, but I felt like those two projects were perfect for what I believed in.


Looking through your body of work, I notice you have completed few projects based in fashion – such as Africa Fashion Week 2017 and a swimwear collection for INTROE in 2020 – is this something you have always wanted to do and what do you enjoy most about these collaborations?

I enjoy working with fashion a lot, there’s a lot of scope for creativity. With the style of my work – the elements of street art, graffiti, more roughness, and griminess – it’s kind of what is being seen a lot in fashion today, like with Gucci and Louis Vuitton who work with street artists on their campaigns. I think naturally my work fits in there really well. A couple of my family members have a strong fashion background; my grandma was the first woman in Nottingham to open an Asian boutique in the sixties. So, I’ve always had an interest in fashion, and I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been able to discover how I can combine my graffiti and my art with the fashion world. It wasn’t an easy transition, because they are very different, but now that I’ve worked on a couple of campaigns in fashion I can do some more hopefully. It’s something I want to continue exploring, because I feel there is so much I could do with it.

Where do you hope to go next in your art career? Do you have any exciting projects lined up we should be on the lookout for?

I recently moved into my new studio in London, which is a lot bigger now, so it gives me an opportunity to be more consistent with my work and to try new things. Consistency is what you’ll be getting. I’m hoping by the end of this year or in the first couple of months of 2023 that I have my first solo show. I also want to start exploring some more disciplines within art, bringing in animation and motion design into my collages. Also working with some 3D artists and combining my work that way. It’s mainly just more experimentation and to continue pushing my narrative and challenging society.

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